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Labyrinth’s soundtrack is an essential part of David Bowie’s legacy

Photo: Labyrinth/The Jim Henson Company
Photo: Labyrinth/The Jim Henson Company

A kidnapped baby. A Bog Of Eternal Stench. A Goblin King whose stretchy pants leave very little to the imagination. In 1986, director Jim Henson, producer George Lucas, and screenwriter Terry Jones combined these and other elements to make Labyrinth, a movie that depicts the horrors of being a teenager as a bedtime story gone terribly wrong, a magical journey filled with bizarre creatures and frustratingly deceptive pathways. In the film—a box-office and critical disappointment that’s since gained a massive cult following—the oddly intriguing Goblin King steals away with teenage Sarah’s baby brother, offering to return him only after Sarah navigates his maze. For the part of Jareth, the Goblin King, Henson recruited professional intriguing oddball David Bowie, who also provided a handful of the movie’s songs.

In a 1985 New York Times article, Henson explained his choice as the result of wanting to do a lighter movie after the decidedly bleak The Dark Crystal. “We wanted to do a story with small, delightful relationships,” Henson said. “The film captures the moment when an adolescent girl realizes she is responsible for her life. Dark Crystal had a symphony orchestra. Labyrinth will have the funkier sound of David Bowie’s music.”

In the film’s promotional notes, Bowie also referred to the story’s lightness as a reason for his involvement. “Jim gave me the script, which I found very amusing,” he said. “It’s by Terry Jones, of Monty Python, and it has that kind of slightly inane insanity running through it. When I read the script and saw that Jim wanted to put music to it, it just felt as though it could be a really nice, funny thing to do.”

Given Labyrinth’s abrupt tonal shifts—the film skitters on a dime from disorienting shadows to floppy, singing creatures called Fireys—it’s fitting that the soundtrack, which received its first-ever vinyl reissue on May 12, is itself an odd creature. Half of the album is taken up by Trevor Jones’ electric guitar-and-synth score, which hasn’t aged well. Like the movie, however, the album succeeds on its own weirdly endearing charms. That success is largely due to Bowie’s songs, which are too often overlooked in his catalog.

When David Bowie died, media attention was understandably focused on his best albums: Ziggy Stardust, the pop masterpiece Hunky Dory, the Brian Eno-Tony Visconti collaborations of the Berlin Trilogy. And while his songs for Labyrinth don’t match those dizzying heights, they deserve to be more than a footnote to Bowie’s legacy. (The film, let alone Bowie’s musical contribution, wasn’t even mentioned in his New York Times obituary.)

“Underground” bookends the film; the first words heard in Labyrinth are “It’s only forever, not long at all,” plaintively sung by David Bowie in his typically heartbreaking howl. That lyric nicely captures adolescence’s confusing mix of breakneck speed and endless boredom, of obligation and independence. The song’s beckoning to come “down in the underground” sounds like a weird, cool upperclassman helping you find your people in the dark comfort of drama club. Since the song comes minutes before we meet Sarah—a fairy-tale-obsessed 15-year-old who’s about to face adulthood in the intimidating form of Bowie’s Goblin King—its words are especially poignant.

In 1986, Bowie was still riding high from his blockbuster 1983 album Let’s Dance, which whirred along on the puckish energy provided by producer Nile Rodgers and a young upstart guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan. Labyrinth fell squarely in the middle of that commercial high and the creative low of 1987’s Never Let Me Down, which Bowie later described as “an awful album.” Though Never Let Me Down was initially a hit, sales dropped off quickly after critics savaged it. (Rolling Stone’s Steve Pond notably referred to it as the “noisiest, sloppiest Bowie album ever”).

Nevertheless, Never Let Me Down has a distinct charm similar to Labyrinth’s. David Richards’ glossy production sometimes weighs things down—no amount of critical reassessment can save the leaden “Glass Spider”—but the handclap-fueled “Beat Of Your Drum” shares the manic energy of Labyrinth’s infectiously silly “Magic Dance” (which, it must be said, works better on record than it does on film, where Bowie’s lip-syncing skills leave something to be desired).

Similarly, the title track of Never Let Me Down (a tribute to Bowie’s longtime assistant Coco Schwab) recalls Labyrinth’s best song, “As The World Falls Down.” Both songs cater in heartfelt empathy, using classic pop chord progressions to relate the joys and pain of love.

The fact that Jareth sings, “I’ll be there for you as the world falls down,” to a 15-year-old, albeit in her dream, adds to the movie’s creepiness. “There’s both a paternal appeal and stranger-danger in Jareth,” wrote Alison Stine in an insightful Atlantic article shortly after Bowie’s death, “a confusing and unnerving quality… Frankly, it makes Labyrinth difficult at times to rewatch as an adult.”

As Stine points out, it’s Sarah’s resistance to Jareth’s hold on her (and her baby brother)—and not the Goblin King’s generosity—that saves the day. “She finally defeats the Goblin King, winning her brother back and returning to the real world, with a simple line, a line of the triumph of youth, a line thrown at Jareth like a Molotov cocktail: You have no power over me,” Stine writes. Jareth is accordingly both benevolent and disturbing, a line that nobody walked like David Bowie.

Bowie’s fascination with American R&B and pop surfaces in the closing version of “Underground,” a joyous rave-up that starts out as synth-pop before transitioning to a gospel barnstormer, complete with help from ringers Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, and Albert Collins, among many others. Like the Motown-influenced “Modern Love” (and with a similar production style), “Underground” is distinctly American-sounding, making for a striking ending to a fable steeped in European influences like Alice In Wonderland and Grimm’s fairy tales. That combination, of course, is also pure Bowie.

That Labyrinth not only ends with Sarah’s return to her normal life but, with the reprise of “Underground,” a celebration of the dark world that engulfed her, makes the film unmistakably the combined vision of Henson and Bowie. As outsiders who were each given a chance to speak to the masses, in their own unique ways, the two men created a work that, through its simultaneous use of danger as a source of excitement and harm, still speaks directly to the ultimate outsiders: teenagers.